Saturday, September 29, 2012

Hallelujah! What a Savior -- Philip P. Bliss

 His heart was already full, and someone might say that’s why his was a short life. Philip Paul Bliss died tragically with his wife in a train accident, the year after he had written “Hallelujah! What a Savior”. Though he had not yet reached age 40, Bliss had reached an overflowing appreciation of his destiny because of God’s work. He could not contain it, and that’s as much a reason for the direction his last few years of life took as any other. The song he wrote was a microcosm of his music-making efforts and his message to hearers contained therein. Let’s see what he was saying.

Philip Bliss had been engaged in music for the better part of 20 years by the time he wrote “Hallelujah!..” in 1875, but his calling had evolved in a more recent episode. He took his teaching experience that he had developed while still a teenager and turned it toward music with the encouragement and mentorship of others, including his wife Lucy, who recognized his naturally gifted voice. Though he travelled and wrote many hymns to cultivate his reputation in music during the American Civil War and postwar period, by 1874 he had chosen to use his voice not just to make beautiful sounds, but also to spread a message. At the advice of Dwight Moody, Bliss became an evangelist, pairing his hymns with a spoken message that resonated with his hearers. A contemporary biographer noted that Bliss was captivated by Christ, in a way that was evident to those who attended his addresses. His hearers, if they had travelled to hear him at multiple sites, might have noticed his messages rang similarly. Christ. In a word, that was it. And, not just that He existed, but that Bliss was fervent about this God who had done so much for him. Perhaps it was the recent decision he’d made to focus on spreading God’s truth, but Bliss seemed to have crystallized something in his core. ‘Hallelujah’ was not confined to just one song he wrote at the time, but was the prevailing theme of several. He was 37 years old, and seemingly was gifted to sing, write songs, and speak with a passion that spoke volumes to audiences. How many others might Bliss have reached, if 37 had been about the halfway point of his life?

Were the events of December 29th, 1876, which took the lives of Philip and Lucy Bliss, fair? Would Bliss have been bitter, knowing he died young, with a message that many more might have heard and accepted if he hadn’t died on a train in Ashtabula, Ohio? At the time, when Philip initially escaped the wreck but then died trying to rescue his wife, certainly the Blisses must have felt shock. But, a stunning disappointment doesn’t have to persist, something that they would have appreciated too. And, what sense of fairness would any of us rightly expect in the afterlife if God hadn’t intervened for us? This question’s answer must have dawned on Philip Bliss, and we can sing his reaction to this decisive – in fact, divine -- turn of events. Bliss’s voice hasn’t been stilled.  And, his isn’t the only voice. Isn’t God’s music great!


Information on the song was obtained from the books  “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; and “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 

See this site for biography of composer:

See this site for further information on the composer and the hymn’s history:

See following for memoirs of the composer:

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